Wordcount: 796 words
It Was a Dark and Stormy Tavern
Two days later they were no closer to finding a faster way to get to the capital than walking and Wendy was about to suggest they just hit the road. Moonstar was rather adamant that the story hadn’t yet left Riverside, but he was unable to give her solid answer on how long it would wait before it followed them down the road. Since they had the flute and Heather wasn’t there, in theory they could lure the story along behind them. Everything from this point forward was unwritten territory and while the main plot points had been laid out ahead of them, there was no set course from point A to point B. Or at least Moonstar insisted there weren’t any.
Just as Wendy was about to bring the subject up over dinner, a Velanon interpretation of tacos, two of the cowboys from the herd of cattle-things they’d seen on their first trip into Riverside stumbled into the inn. The two were clearly drunk and were singing something that sounded disturbingly like a lament for the dead. Then again, it could simply have been that the two were drunk enough to make The Itsy Bitsy Spider sound like a dirge. She watched out of the corner of her eyes, trying to be discrete… and then noticed no one else at her table was bothering to make the same effort.
“To Pater Davin!” One of the cowboys raised a newly acquired glass in slightly wobbly toast. “To him that was, an’ him that is, an’ him will be again!”
“To him that was!” Came the ragged chorus from the other patrons at the inn, including Gray and Riley.
“Never a more honest man than walked the path before us, never a more beloved son and brother!”
“To him that is!”
“Seated on the left side of Shadow and right side of Light, keepin’ our seats at the table!”
“To him will be again!”
“Till we all be sat at the table!”
“To Pater Davin!” The whole inn joined in for the last call, and the two cowboys finished their drinks and moved back towards the door, pausing to talk to those who stepped forwards to offer their condolences.
“So, what was that all about?” Wendy whispered over her mug, her ears still ringing slightly from the final shout.
Gray blinked, “You’ve never heard a death call before? How’d you manage that?”
“A death what?”
“They go ’round and let folks know he’s passed on,” Riley added helpfully, “You know, up to the table.”
“So they go to every inn and announce it like that?”
“Um, no.” Gray was giving her an unreadable look. “Only the places where they’d been staying so his friends know. You really haven’t ever heard a death call before?”
“Obviously not,” she went back to concentrating on her dinner.
There was an awkward pause in the conversation, then Riley and Gray followed her example. A short time later a band of well-soused riverboat workers stumbled into the inn and ran them through the same call and response for two other names. This time she could at least join in the ritual, although she was still a little vague on the whole ‘place at the table’ bits. This time instead of moving on the group filed into one of the empty booths and waited for the folks at the inn to come over and pay their respects. For this group the inn was apparently the last stop on their rounds.
Wendy was torn between staying put and heading over to talk to the mourners in order to find out what had happened to the three men. In the end politeness won out and she waited to talk to one of the subcooks who she’d made friends with earlier.
“They found the barge washed up just short of Five Sheep; no people, no cattle, not even the river gators.” Milo shook his head sadly. “Hasn’t been a death on this river for ten years or more, and now this.”
“They don’t have any idea what happened?” Wendy was slightly incredulous, the barges were enormous and even if they’d killed the three men there were fifty head of not-cattle and four massive river gators they would have had to hide.
“Nope, but they are looking for folks willing to help look.” He nodded over at the table, which had descending into singing mournful songs about rivers and ghosts and the confusing afterlife-as-a-table concept. “Not the most cheerful work, looking for bodies, but it’ll get you up to Five Sheep and you should be able to pick up a caravan to Fenrith Lei from there.”
And for a moment Wendy wondered if the story had killed those poor men just to give her a way forward.